Menstruation affects every woman differently; no two people or periods are the same.
But, menstruation is a reality for most women. It can affect you physically, emotionally, and at its worst, can negatively impact your work performance, health and life.
Pain, drowsiness, discomfort and mood swings...
More than half of women experience these symptoms.
20% report pain is severe enough to interfere with their daily life, suffering from conditions like dysmenorrhea, anaemia and endometriosis.
Does this mean women are at a disadvantage in the workplace due to menstruation? Oh, hell, no!
But, your menstrual cycle doesn't adjust to suit your busy schedule, so depending on your job role and the symptoms you experience, your period can present some obstacles. Obstacles we women need to be talking about...
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The 21st century - Periods got woke
Period talk is on the rise. People and organisations across the globe are starting movements and campaigns like #periodpower, ending the tampon tax and Period Con (yes, it's a thing!). Hell, we even have an emoji for it!
Women have been conditioned to adjust to society's perception of periods as taboo for too long. Periods have lead to the exclusion of women from social, domestic, and educational activities in places like Nepal, India and Africa. Developed countries also have their forms of period taboos...
42% per cent of women experience menstruation-shaming, and 58% of women feel a sense of embarrassment because they are on their period. People are even still using terms like 'aunt flow' and 'that time of the month,' how many ways can we avoid saying 'period'?
Your period is nothing to be ashamed of; it's essential to understand that menstruation is healthy and a necessary function that supports the female physiology.
Women's Health Expert, Alisa Vitti says, "Women are seeking to shift the imbalances created by the patriarchy. We must stop modelling our lives on a masculine biochemical 24-hour schedule. It's time to work based on a female paradigm of productivity, success, and fulfilment."
She suggests; women should look to implement a lifestyle of healthy foods and exercise routines based on the four phases of the female hormonal cycle:
Embrace your period as a sign of good health. Your body is functioning as it should and acceptance of your period is the first step towards a healthy period.
Become empowered to learn more about your cycle and use it to improve your life through menstrual cycle mapping, understanding the flow of your hormones and the effect on your body to optimise work, workouts and become a happier, healthier you.
Credit: Image by Yoko Miyagawa/BBC
What is menstrual cycle mapping, how can I track it, and what am I tracking?
The "textbook" women's cycle is approximately 29 days, but every woman is different.
From the length of your cycle, the heaviness of your period to the symptoms you experience, menstrual cycles are dynamic. While variations are entirely normal, in some cases, differences can be a warning sign that something more serious may be going on with your body.
This is precisely why cycle mapping/tracking is vital in women's health. Without monitoring, how else could you pinpoint an irregularity so you could seek the advice of a healthcare provider?
Tech companies are now embracing the fact that women have more to track than just steps and calories with cycle mapping apps, like;
Women looking for simple cycle tracking without additional content. You can track previous and upcoming periods and set notifications for period predictions and cycle phases.
Recognised as the #1 mobile product for women's health. Flo's mission is to "seamlessly elevate women’s health by leveraging the essential need for period tracking."
Sync your data with Apple’s Health app, track your sleep duration, water consumption, and physical activity.
The #1 doctor-recommended period tracker app. Built in collaboration with top health researchers, scientists and universities to ensure continuous improvements.
View your cycle predictions with the most up-to-date science and learn about patterns in your cycle with tracking options like cramps, skin, hair and sleep, to gain a better understanding of how your body works.
So now you know all about period tracking and why it is important, let's introduce to you the four magical phases of the female cycle.
Phase 1: Follicular (10-22 days)
What is happening:
- For most, the follicular phase lasts 10-22 days from the beginning of your period until ovulation.
- Your bodies hormone control centre (hypothalamus) sends a message to the pituitary gland at the base of your brain to release the follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH).
- FSH stimulates your ovaries to produce follicles. Inside each follicle is an immature egg.
- One follicle becomes dominant, and all others are absorbed into your body. The dominant follicle increases your estrogen levels, thickening your uterine lining in preparation for pregnancy.
- The increase in estrogen boosts your energy, mood and brain skills. You feel more confident, powerful and willing to take risks.
Enhancing work performance during the follicular phase:
According to Dr Kecia Gaither, the "superstar" time for a woman during her cycle is the follicular phase.
You'll experience an increase in creativity due to the surge of estrogen, encouraging inspiration and optimism. Now is the perfect time to dive into new projects or get some creative writing happening and pre-plan articles ahead of time.
Lastly, a quality brainstorming session starts with random spurts of creativeness, so schedule in team or client meetings, and lay your creative thoughts out on the table.
Nutrition - Energy boosting foods
To increase your energy through this phase, focus on foods rich in iron and B12 like, grass-fed beef, salmon and organic chicken. For vegetarians, opt for dark leafy greens and include a source of vitamin C with citrus fruits like orange or lemon to enhance the absorption of plant-based iron.
To support the production of hormones during this phase, nutritionist Dr Khan suggests that digestive health should be a point of focus to support gut balance. Stock up on some probiotic-rich foods like yoghurt, kimchi and sauerkraut. Omega three fats like nuts and fish, and an array of coloured vegetables to support liver detoxification.
Fitness - Increasing muscle strength
Researchers from Clue, a period tracking app, encourage women to enhance their strength training during this phase, and you may see improvements in muscle strength.
The rise in estrogen during the late follicular phase is suggested to hamper pre-exercise carbohydrate storage. Therefore, carb-loading the day before and during exercise may be optimal for female endurance athletes.
However, research conducted by Vivek Balachandar revealed that during the follicular phase, women are more likely to suffer musculoskeletal injuries. This is due to lower rates of tendon collagen synthesis post-exercise. Spend some time on warm-up and cool-down exercises.
Phase 2: Ovulation (1-3 days)
What is happening:
- The ovulatory phase is the shortest, lasting 2-3 days. It occurs midway through your cycle, 13-15 days before the start of your next period.
- Before ovulation, a pituitary hormone called luteinizing hormone (LH) will increase, and an egg will be released.
- Your basal body temperature rises slightly due to an increase in progesterone.
- You are still on an estrogen high from the follicular phase, so you'll be feeling confident as hell!
Enhancing work performance during the ovulation phase:
Your hormone levels before, during and after ovulation support the function of the verbal and social centres of your brain, encouraging you to be more extroverted.
During this time, have those meaningful conversations like negotiating a pay rise, closing client deals or schedule in a lunch with colleagues to boost morale.
Nutrition - Cut the carbs
Estrogen has an appetite-suppressing effect and can cause women to experience less hunger while still feeling energised, with a woman's need to rely on carbohydrates for energy decreasing (winning!). The diet focus here should be protein and fat sources to sustain positive energy, and fibre to detoxify the increase in hormones.
In Ayurvedic medicine (a holistic Indian healing system), it is believed that foods that reinforce the spirit and heart, also known as "Oja promoting foods", are the most nourishing.
Think clean hearty meals containing sources of protein like lamb and lentils. Whole grains like quinoa and buckwheat. Herbal teas like ginger, turmeric and dandelion root—fibre-rich veggies like asparagus, Brussel sprouts and spinach. Lastly, antioxidant-rich fruits like raspberries, strawberries and coconut.
Introduce bitter-tasting foods to support your digestive system to absorb more nutrients from foods and help to balance blood sugar. They also assist your liver in the high level of hormones that are circling your body right now.
Fitness - PB's and HIIT workouts
Your body is at its peak energy status during these few days due to the surge of energy from hormones. Additionally, you can expect to see a significant increase in quadricep strength. So take advantage! Hit some new PBs or choose exercises that will make you sweat! High-intensity interval training (HIIT), jogging, or vigorous yoga are some excellent choices.
Credit: Photo by Meghan Holmes on Unsplash
The dark horse
Phase 3: Luteal (14 days)
What is happening:
- The luteal phase typically lasts 14 days but can range between 9 and 16 days.
- After ovulation, FSH and LH levels decline and will remain low. Estrogen levels decrease, and the follicle that released the egg will gradually produce progesterone midway through the luteal phase.
- During the second week of the luteal phase, estrogen will begin to rise in preparation for pregnancy. If there is no fertilisation, estrogen and progesterone levels will drop and cause the uterine lining to shed.
- The fluctuation in hormones during this phase will initiate common premenstrual symptoms (PMS) like mood changes, headaches, acne, bloating and an increase in food cravings.
Enhancing work performance during the luteal phase:
Progesterone produces a calming effect on your body, causing you to slow down as your energy levels drop. Now is the prime time for detail-orientated work tasks. Catch up on bookkeeping, wrap up loose ends on projects, and any administrative type tasks like monthly reporting.
Focus on some self-care practices to help you through this period of low energy. At this point, your body needs to chill!
Nutrition - Eat light, but often
Due to an increase in progesterone, the luteal phase is where the food cravings peak.
Progesterone can boost your cravings for comfort foods high in fat and calories. To combat cravings, ensure you are getting ample amounts of calcium, magnesium, omega three oils and B-vitamins. These nutrients can also prevent sugar cravings and reduce period pain.
Dig deep into protein sources like beef, kangaroo and sardines. Whole grains like brown rice, and vegetables from under the ground like sweet potatoes, carrots, and onions.
Add foods containing zinc like red meat, chickpeas and nuts are also essential to support progesterone production. Sustain the progesterone hormone to avoid pre-menstrual craziness, skin flare-ups and premature menstruation.
An additional effect of progesterone is its ability to make your body sensitive to changes in blood sugar. If you aren't eating enough during this phase, dramatic mood shifts are likely to occur, leaving you more emotional. To fight off the emotional roller coaster, eat regularly, every 3-4 hours should suffice.
Fitness - Slow and steady
In the early days of your luteal phase, you will continue to experience that surge of energy from the ovulation phase. So keep up with high-intensity workouts.
Gradually, that surge will decrease. Keep an eye out for changes in your energy and begin to ease off on strenuous exercise. Focus on some lighter options like walking, yoga or light dumbbell sessions.
Reevaluate and recharge
Phase 4: Menstruation (1-5 days)
What is happening:
- Lasting anywhere up to 7 days, day 1 of your cycle is the first sign of bleeding.
- Your hormone levels reduce to low concentrations; you begin to feel a sense of relief. You can process information logically with enhanced intuition due to a robust synaptic conductivity between the left and right hemispheres of the brain.
- During this week, your energy is the lowest it will be during your cycle and may experience fatigue.
Enhancing work performance during the menstruation phase:
Although the time of your period generally brings symptoms of nausea, cramping and lower back pain, your period is the ideal time to reflect, evaluate and listen to your gut feelings.
How did you perform over the past month?
Did you make steady progress towards your goals?
Are you working on tasks that mean something to you?
What does success look like to you?
How do you feel about your job or career, and are you heading in the right direction to achieve success?
What changes can you make next month to feel happy?
Nutrition - Comfort foods
Due to low energy levels, focus on blood-building foods that help restore and re-mineralise your body and kidneys. Your kidneys are associated with energy reserves, also known as the adrenal system.
If there is a time for comfort foods, it's now. Think of water-rich fruits and vegetables that have a low glycemic index and rich in iron, zinc, and iodine. Kidney beans, black lentils, seafood (high in trace minerals), whole grains like rye, black or red rice and vegetables like beets, mushrooms, purple kale and watermelon can be therapeutic.
Include some herbs that remind you of those soul-warming-winter-dishes like thyme, rosemary, cumin and pepper.
And for those sweet tooth cravings, keep some dark chocolate on hand.
Fitness - Cut back and continue with light movement
As your energy levels are lower during the menstruation phase, listen to your body and find what will work best for you.
Although exercise may be the last thing on your mind during menstruation, research shows that exercise has been proven to alleviate period symptoms like cramps, bloating and mood swings. Turn to some activities like yin yoga and walking.
If you're tired, listen to your body and give it the rest it needs. Although, if you find you have the energy for something a little more intensive, don't hold back. Your lower estrogen levels during this phase may mean that you're less prone to injuries right now.
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Menstrual cycle mapping enhances the performance of female athletes
Cycle mapping has become a game-changer for women looking to gain insight into their biochemistry for fitness. Once just a tool for women trying to fall pregnant or diagnose menstrual cycle problems, cycle mapping is now being used by elite sportswomen to improve their performance.
The Brisbane Lions Women's Football team track their menstrual cycles to optimise training and recovery. Coach Matt Green says cycle mapping has given the club staff essential data on how each athlete is responding to their training and nutrition plans.
Their reasoning behind getting onboard menstrual tacking was to ensure players were avoiding health deficiencies, the major one in female athletes being, 'The Female Athlete Triad:'
- Energy deficiencies
- Menstrual disturbances
- Bone loss
If a player reports missing her period, this allows her coaches to engage with the team's dietician, psychologist, physio and medical staff to brainstorm strategies that will stimulate her period to return.
Brisbane Lion's player Lauren Arnell said, "You hear about it all the time at training. With 30 players, it's probably one in four that's going to have their period each session. In terms of the impact on the training, a lot of the time, it's really just if it's affecting you heavily, you can have conversations and training may be monitored and altered."
The USA women's soccer team have also adopted the approach of menstrual cycle tracking and tracked their player's periods in the lead up to the 2019 Women's World Cup. The National Women's Soccer League credited the use of period tracking as one of the strategies that supported their success.
What does the future of periods look like in the workplace?
In the late 19th century, the fact that women menstruated became a reason to keep them out of the workforce.
In WWII, women air service pilots were prohibited from flying when menstruating due to becoming at risk of fainting in the cockpit... WHAT THE?!
In today's society, however, workplaces are making some big moves in the fight for equality and women's rights. In the hope that it will better their workplace to become more efficient and creative, a UK company introduced a "period policy", designed to allow women paid leave during the time of menstruation without feeling stigmatised.
Bex Baxter, the director of Coexist, where 77% of staff are women, told the Guardian, "I have managed many female members of staff over the years, and I have seen women at work who are bent over double because of the pain caused by their periods. Despite this, they feel they cannot go home because they do not class themselves as unwell."
"There is a misconception that taking time off makes a business unproductive – actually it is about synchronising work with the natural cycles of the body."
As a woman who has personally experienced a bad-period-episode at work, this makes me want to cry with happiness.
Although society still has a long way to go in reducing the stigma around periods in the workplace, it is heartwarming to see both men and women in leadership positions encouraging change like this.
Credit: Photo by Monica Melton on Unsplash
Yes, we are a work in progress... own it!
Gloria Steinem, founder of Ms. Magazine says, "Girls are taught to view their bodies as unending projects to work on whereas boys are taught to view their bodies as tools to master their environment."
This supports the argument that women need to ditch the "deal with it" approach when it comes to your menstrual cycle and start taking control.
Throughout our lives, we're setting fitness, life and career goals to work towards. Why not enhance your progress and tailor your plans to suit the phase of your cycle you're currently in.
The beauty of cycle mapping and fitness is, if you have a personal trainer, keep them in the loop about your cycle and when your next period is due. Your personal trainer won't plan a personal best of hitting an 80kg deadlift during the time of menstruation. Because you both know quite well, it's going to be a struggle! Plan to hit some PB's between your follicular to ovulation phase.
If you have some loose ends to tie up at work, projects, reports or general housekeeping tasks, schedule these in during your luteal phase knowing this is time for detail-orientated tasks.
Getting started with your cycle mapping is easy. All you need to do is enter the dates of your last period into one of the apps mentioned earlier. If you don't remember your dates, start making some daily entries of your mood and symptoms. When your period returns, log it.
Keeping a daily log of your moods and symptoms through menstrual cycle tracking will, over time, predict where you are in your cycle.
By introducing foods and training regimes at different points of your cycle, you will be able to improve your overall health for both body and mind and start to climb that corporate ladder to success.
Want to learn more about health tracking? Check out Sophie's post on food tracking and how eating 2000+ calories a day enhanced her productivity.